Friday, September 12, 2014

Family Tree

When I was in grammar school, one of our assignments was to create a family tree. I don't remember if the assignment was in Social Studies or Geography, but I do remember making the chart of my grandparents, their children, and my immediate family. Many of my classmates had larger charts, but mine was short generation-wise and large family-wise.

Family trees and the importance of knowing family history popped up here and there in many of the books I read when I was young. Little Women followed by Little Men, Eight Cousins, and even Freckles, which had a side plot of tracking down a child left at an orphanage. Several series of horse and dog books emphasized lineage and traits passed down from parent to child. And then came Lord of the Rings with its various family lines of elf, dwarf, hobbit and humans all looking back to an important ancestor or down to a descendant destined for impressive deeds.

Sometime after college I decided to do some research into my family tree. According to my father, his father cut himself off from his family, which was why that side of the family only seemed to start with my grandfather. I contacted my father’s oldest sister and fortunately she was able to remember more about both my grandparents on that side, including names of great-grandparents.

My mother's side presented some difficulties, as my mother was an only child. Although my mother had died while I was in college, her aunt was still alive and could give details on my mother's father's side of the family back several generations. But not the maternal side. My mother's mother had been raised by her cousins. I still can't find out what happened to the parents.

It’s been interesting to watch the improvements and accessibility in doing family research. Back in 1979 I had to hire a researcher in Pennsylvania who could check courthouse and graveyard records for my Irish/English/German (my father's) side of the family. I could request census records on microfilm through interlibrary loan and spend evenings scanning street addresses to find households. Nowadays sites such as can let you look through those records for free and membership sites like have even more records.

When I first started my family tree I hand drew charts listing and linking families. Over the years several companies sprang up with charts you could fill in and share online or print for relatives. is what I use now. I've been contacted by relatives I never knew existed and it's great to see how the trees match. Research on my German side got a big boost after I heard from a previously unknown cousin on that side who was looking up baptismal records.

If you decide to research your family tree, don't be surprised at the reactions you might get from some family members. Back when I started, I'd send copies of the hand drawn charts out to my cousins, and while some were enthusiastic, I never got any details to add to the tree back from them. Not even about their children.

Some people are reluctant to share details about their trees because there are some "researchers" that add people to their trees without stopping to figure out dates and places. I've had three people add my great-grandparents to their trees and attach a marriage certificate from 1884 in West Derby, England, to them. However, in 1884 my great-grandparents had already had four kids and were in America. Somehow I doubt they would have made the trip back to England to get married.

Television shows like Who Do You Think You Are are great at drumming up interest in genealogical research, but present a false image of how difficult family research can be. I would love to have been able to walk into the National Archives in Dublin and have them present me with a list of my Irish ancestors. They do have access to a lot of paper records, but, as I learned last week, they start off the search with a number of the free databases accessible to anyone worldwide, such as FreeBMD, which is the birth/marriage/death index for England and Wales, 1837-1915; or Irish There are also Facebook groups on genealogy in general and genealogy in specific areas.

There are several gaps difficult to fill. My problem with my mother's maternal line isn't helped by the fact that the records for the 1890 census for the U.S. were destroyed in a 1921 fire. Irish records have a similar problem in that a number of archives in Ireland for records before 1922 were destroyed by a fire there in 1922.

Still, genealogical research is fascinating in many ways. And it can be fun to turn that to the development of characters for fiction across several genres, not just family sagas. I'm currently working on a YA science fiction story about a girl who wants to be an explorer like her grandmother. Plotting out her family is important.

The Lord of the Rings and its companion books aren't the only books I've read with large family trees. Sharon Lee and Steve Miller's Liaden Universe is so extensive that there is a wiki to help keep track of the clan and its members. Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan series and Elizabeth Moon's Serrano series also stretch over several generations. C.J. Cherryh's Foreigner series has important relationships between families determining the leadership of a planet.

Have you done any genealogical research? Do you enjoy fantasy stories with extensive family trees? Or family sagas?


  1. Genealogy is one of my favorite activities. It's been awhile but I did research my father's family and my mother's. My cousin and I put together a book and sold it to relatives. It needs updating now, and that's on my to-do list. Like you, I met wonderful relatives and friends that sent me great information. The Internet is a big help. My mother's family was more difficult, since she was an orphan, but the Children's Aid Society of New York sent me what they had about her life. Now, you've brought my interest in the family tree to life again. Need to get busy. Great article. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. I was the family history regional director of my Mormon church for a while there. I would go out and give presentations of how to do your genealogy to helping others get started. Genealogy is HUGE in my church. I was able to trace back to my first Acuna ancestor who came over with Cortez. Later found he was a converso(converted Jew) fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. Later it came to the new world and my family and others with Jewish heritage were tortured and burned to the stake. The Mexican inquisition lasted longer than the one in Spain and was bloodier too. I have the Inquisition papers(the priests kept triplicates) of what my one ancestor, Alvaro Acuna, suffered back in 1644.